Good Strategy that Works!

21st October is Trafalgar Day. Here’s what happened. “In 1805, England had a problem. Napoléon had conquered big chunks of Europe and planned the invasion of England. But to cross the Channel, he needed to wrest control of the sea away from the English. Off the southwest coast of Spain, the French and Spanish combined fleet of thirty-three ships met the smaller British fleet of twenty-seven ships. The well-developed tactics of the day were for the two opposing fleets to each stay in line, firing broadsides at each other. But British admiral Lord Nelson had a strategic insight. He broke the British fleet into two columns and drove them at the Franco-Spanish fleet, hitting their line perpendicularly. The lead British ships took a great risk, but Nelson judged that the less-trained Franco-Spanish gunners would not be able to compensate for the heavy swell that day. At the end of the Battle of Trafalgar, the French and Spanish lost twenty-two ships, two-thirds of their fleet. The British lost none. Nelson was mortally wounded, becoming, in death, Britain’s greatest naval hero. Britain’s naval dominance was ensured and remained unsurpassed for a century and a half.”

I am indebted to Professor Richard Rumelt for this narrative. It appears at the start of his much acclaimed book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy (2011, New York: Crown Publishing). He interprets Nelson’s strategy in this way:

“Nelson’s challenge was that he was outnumbered. His strategy was to risk his lead ships in order to break the coherence of his enemy’s fleet. With coherence lost, he judged, the more experienced English captains would come out on top in the ensuing melee. Good strategy almost always looks this simple and obvious and does not take a thick deck of PowerPoint slides to explain. It does not pop out of some “strategic management” tool, matrix, chart, triangle, or fill-in-the-blanks scheme. Instead, a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them.”

I am indebted to Professor Richard Rumelt for his research and whole approach to Strategy. When I think of the number of times I have been taken through a Vision, Values and Mission Statement exercise, wondering what was actually going to make a difference … I now understand! Strategy is the application of a clear process with an output that delivers results. And Rumelt’s book makes this plain with the three point process analogous to a medical consultation: diagnose the problem from the symptoms (challenge); select the treatment regime (policy); prescribe the treatment (action). There is so much more in the book, amply illustrated with great examples from modern and historic business and military life. This will be a reference book for me, reminding me of the need toavoid fluff and deliver clarity and action to win!

One Comment

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